work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

Ethical selving determined?

01.11.2011 · Posted in Uncategorized

Apparently I am a “macro-structural” determinist now. I wasn’t aware of that , but according Reijonen 2011 (in an article titled ‘Environmentally friendly consumer: from determinism to emergence” in the section on “macro-structuralism”) my article on “Ethical selving in cultural contexts” makes me just that:

Several scholars advocate a particular type of dominant social paradigm (Kilbourne et al., 1997; Kilbourneand Carlson, 2008) or cultural context (Varul, 2009) as the main explanation for unsustainable or sustainable consumption patterns.

Not conceiving of myself as determinist, this calls for some self-reassurance… so:

I didn’t really mean to present “cultural contexts” as a “dominant social paradigm” in the sense of “cultural value and belief systems and their institutionalized enactments in politics, economy and society” as claimed by Reijonen. What I do hold, however, is that if you want to communicate a socially relevant practice you need a shared frame of reference (among other things for example a “moral grammar”) – which does not determine what you do; it creates a range of possibilities (but also limits the possible, of course), including the possibility of transcending it. Here’s how I presented the relation between individual efforts of self-making and the cultural contexts in which they happen.

Through the internal consistency of their choices (McCracken, 1988, pp. 118–129), consumers can constitute themselves as ethical subjects. Ethics is functional in enabling social interaction by establishing accountabilities (Foucault, 1987, p. 118), accountable personhood, which is why ethic selving always must refer to the possibility of a moral judgement by others and normally also provides a yardstick for judging others. As this can only work in a shared framework of reference, ethical selving has to be seen as socially embedded in pre-existing discourses and practices in whose terms ethical selves can seek legitimacy. While ethical consumption may often be an individualistic practice, it is clear that it can be only fully understood when put into a cultural context. While the possibly most relevant context for fairtrade is globalized consumer capitalism, there also is a variety of more particular cultural (institutional, discursive, societal) conditions that open specific paths and pose specific obstacles for ethical selving.

What I meant here – and haven’t spelled out fully – is a dialectal, not deterministic relation between action and pre-existing social discourses and practices in the old-fashioned Marxian sense that people create themselves, but do so under conditions not all under their control. Conditions that always allow for different choices – so if deterministic at all this contstitutes a probabilistic determinism where some paths are more likely than others. Part of this, and that I fail to point out in the text, that of course  ethical consumption itself, as a meaningful activity of a number of people, becomes part of the “cultural context”.

But even with this omission I don’t see how mine differs fundamentally from an approach (as proposed by Reijonen) that looks at “action as situated in concrete, socio-material settings”. In fact the cultural contexts I am talking about should count as such socio-material settings in a wider sense. Or even in a narrower sense: one marked difference between the UK and Germany is that German fair trade does rely much more on small world shops – socio-material settings which as “morally and aesthetically defined spaces” (Varul 2009b:  186) work as refuge from an alienating world of shopping for some and both sensorical and symbolical barrier for others.

Still, there might be a gap between what one sets to do and what one then actually does:

It is not necessarily the aim of the segmentalists, situationalists or macro-structuralists to pre-empt the notion of the green consumer in this way. However, explanations that are based on particular variables easily turn the behaviour of an individual into a mere factor or result of these – a dynamic that might only be reversed by skilful and empirically sensitive research methods.

Point given – whatever the assertation one makes in the introduction, there’s always a danger of slipping into a simpler way of explaining things than intended. On the other hand the introduction is a footnote to the whole text that should qualify its reading. So even if I effectively give some reasons why cultural conditions in the widest sense could be accountable for the different ways that fair trade is done in Germany and the UK, that does not mean that I apply a deterministic “macro-structural” explanation of ethical consumption as such.  The notion of “ethical selving” in the title was intended as a reminder that the story is not one of contexts determining passive selves, that it is an active process.

That this process is complex and by no means “determined” is clear – including visual attractions and gustatory temptations alongside and interwoven with rational moral deliberations and social positioning in what I called “ethical tastes” and “tastes for ethics” (Varul 2009a: 373ff.). Taste – aesthetics as an intersection between the social/symbolical and the sensual/material is important and when it comes to explaining ethical consumption. And while I take the notion of taste as such an intersection from Bourdieu (1979), I don’t think there is any trace of his class determinism in my work…


Bourdieu, Pierre (1979): La distinction, Paris: Minuit.

Reijonen, Satu (2011): ‘Environmentally Friendly Consumer: From Determinism to Emergence’, in: International Journal of Consumer Studies (forthcoming – early view here)

Varul, Matthias Zick (2009a): ‘Ethical Consumption: The Case of Fair Trade’, Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, SH49 (Wirtschaftssoziologie), pp.366-85 .

Varul, Matthias Zick (2009b): ‘Ethical Selving in Cultural Contexts: Fair Trade Consumption as an Everyday Ethical Practice in the UK and Germany’, in: International Journal of Consumer Studies, Vol.33, No.2, pp.183-9.

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